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Code-Switching: Navigating Identity as a South Asian Immigrant in the New York City Professional and Social Landscape

  • Navigating the pressures of assimilation in NYC.

  • Code-switching: Alternating languages, dialects, or behaviors based on social context.

  • Assimilation pressures deeply impact mental health.

  • South Asians often modify accents and adopt Western norms for acceptance.

  • Code-switching entails a profound sense of grief.

  • Suppressing these elements feels like erasing a part of oneself.

  • Code-switching highlights the ability to navigate multiple cultural landscapes.

  • Balancing assimilation and cultural retention is a personal journey that requires self-compassion & support.

  • Immigrant success lies in thriving while maintaining unique cultural identities.

  • Code-switching, despite its challenges, is a testament to resilience.

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Being a South Asian immigrant who lives in New York City, I commonly find myself at the intersection of multiple identities. Navigating who I was, with who I am "supposed to be". NYC's melting pot diversity juxtaposed with the unspoken pressures of assimilation creates a uniquely challenging landscape for immigrants. In this blog, I paint a comprehensive picture of code-switching and its effects by drawing from a combination of my own lived experience as an immigrant in NYC and my professional journey as a therapist who works with South Asian clients.

One occurrence that encapsulates these challenges is code-switching. Code-switching is the practice of switching between dialects, accents, cultural behaviors, and languages depending on the kind of social context you are a part of. Code-switching also entails a variety of sub-phenomenons such as:

  • Accent Modification/Accent Shifting

  • Language Switching

  • Dialect Switching

  • Style or Register Switching

  • Cultural Behavior Switching

  • Sociolect Switching

  • Topic-Based Switching

  • Situational Switching

  • Identity Switching

The Pressures of Assimilation

This reality is much too common among the immigrant community. As a therapist, I have seen the effects on mental health of assimilation on the minority clients that I have worked with - particularly immigrants.

Indian woman looking at camera | Culturally competent care at Boundless with a South Asian Therapist | 10002 | 10029 | 10008

For South Asians, the invisible expectation to blend into American society may manifest as adopting cultural norms, forgoing cultural tradition, changing one's manner of dress, modifying one's accent, and even wholly altering one's appearance. Although this may merely sound to you like "fitting in", it is significantly attached to personal survival and success. The societal bias that exists against minority accents shows itself as being overlooked for opportunities, promotions, and social engagements. In workplace settings, an accent being vocalized may be unfairly perceived as a lack of competency, intelligence, or proficiency. This apparent bias forces immigrant to adopt variations in their accents - either to be more neutral or completely "Westernized".

"As a South Asian therapist, I have observed clients grapple with this conflict, experiencing their real selves as being "inferior". This chronic pressure to conform leads to a shaken sense of self, a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence, and a sense of isolation and alienation."

The Grief of Code-Switching Code-switching also brings on a sense of loss. The grief is rooted in the feeling of losing a part of oneself as we assimilate into a new culture. For most South Asian immigrants, and I know for myself, our accents, ability to switch between our regional languages and English, and cultural expressions are integral to our identities. When these parts of us are repressed or modified, it can feel like a part of us is being erased.

This grief is multifarious - it includes mourning the loss of one's regional language in professional and social environments, the discomfort of not expressing yourself fully in social settings, and the emotional toll of constantly monitoring one's behavior, language, and mannerisms.

The timestamp of 01:40 - 2:10 in the video below is a great example of code-switching when it comes to one's accent.

I found an intriguing comment under this video that also was able to capture my perception of the professor in this class, and his missteps during this seminar.

@MusaAbdullah425"I think the professor misses the point and fails to convey the reasons why people code-switch. Code-switching is a linguistic coping measure that speakers of other languages or dialects use in order to gain acceptance by the speakers of the dominant dialect. This demonstration is unnatural and stilted. Not only does it not demonstrate the spontaneous nature of code-switching, but this demonstration alienates the students from the rest of the class by pointing out or exposing the rest of the class to the demonstrators' so-called "authentic speech style". Without laying a theoretical foundation for this demonstration, this exercise appears, novel, demeaning, and unplanned. It reinforces the "powerful, powerless" dialectic in an unbecoming manner for the demonstrators. Code-switching is natural, beautiful, and creative. Everyone uses code-switching. Yes, even speakers of the dominant dialect."

Reframing Code-Switching

The universal narrative around code-switching frames assimilation as a necessary skill and almost a mandate in American society. However, this perspective negligently and inadvertently labels those who struggle with assimilation as "failures". It is so important for us to reframe code-switching within our own communities, most importantly, as a complex and nuances aspect of the immigrant experience rather than a failure.

From the lens of a therapist, acknowledging the struggle of code-switching and validating the feelings associated with this process is crucial. It empowers our clients to remind themselves of their resilience and adaptability, rather than internalizing the narratives of larger society as them failing.

Moreover, code-switching should be recognized as a skill that demonstrates one's ability to navigate multiple cultural landscapes and highlights one's capacity to bridge polarizingly different words. Embracing this new narrative allows immigrants to reclaim their story and view their bicultural, and bilingual abilities as a strength rather than a liability.

The Importance of Holding Onto Our Cultural Roots

Faced with the pressures of assimilation, it is important to practice and maintain cultural anchoring.

Cultural practices, languages, and traditions are a source of solace and identification for South Asian immigrants. They are not relics of the past, but rather, living elements of an identity that provides a strong sense of home.

Within the context of my own clinical practice, I invite clients to use their cultural legacy as a source of strength. I encourage them to participate in cultural rituals such as festivals and ceremonies like Diwali and Eid; to speak their regional languages at home or with their peers; to support community organizations with fellow immigrants; and to connect with other minority peers to combat the alienation experienced in wider society. Engaging in these behaviors and feeling closer to their cultural legacy allows clients to build a stronger sense of self and personal pride.

Finding Balance

The path to walking that line between assimilation and cultural retention is individual and different for everyone, but as a therapist, I believe that learning to be more self-compassionate, building self-awareness, prioritizing our emotional needs, and taking the time to deeply understand ourselves will allow us to reconcile that dissonance.

I share with my clients the idea that the pressures to assimilate are brought on by forces external to ourselves - rooted in systemic bias. Understanding this can help reduce the burden of the internalized guilt or shame that they may carry.

Triumph in Diversity

At the end of the day, the success of immigrants in American society lies not in their ability to completely assimilate, but rather, in their capacity to thrive while holding onto their cultural roots.

The immigrant community in New York City contributes to the city's diversity by bringing with them unique narratives, languages, and cultural practices. Embracing both their heritage and new environment and culture empowers South Asian immigrants to confidently navigate their identities. Finding a harmonious balance between belonging to broader society and honoring their roots enriches not only the individual but also enhances the cultural tapestry of the community.

Code-switching, a complex aspect of the immigrant journey, plays a significant role in shaping identity and mental well-being. As a therapist for South Asian immigrants in New York City, I have observed its profound effects. By redefining code-switching, recognizing its challenges, and highlighting the value of cultural heritage, we can inspire immigrants to embrace their identities with strength and dignity. It is through this delicate equilibrium that we can truly excel in a diverse society, cherishing our differences as sources of strength and vitality.

Prerna Menon co-founder of Boundless Therapy New York | 10002

Author Bio Prerna Menon, LCSW

Prerna is the Co-founder of Boundless, a progressive mental health practice in NYC serving the South Asian and LGBTQ+ community. She is a queer immigrant of color that entered the mental health field in 2011 with a desire to be the representation she desired in the space as a child. With a deep passion for social justice and writing, she is often featured on the Boundless blog.

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